Friday, November 15, 2013

The Anthropology of Motherhood

The Pure Gold Baby by Margaret Drabble


Anna seemed like a normal baby when she was born to her unwed mother Jess. As she grew, she seemed ultimately happy. She was the type of child who glowed from within. So when Jess realized that Anna wasn't normal, that she'd never learn to read or do math, she decided to do everything she could to protect and care for her. Despite this, her mostly abandoned career in anthropology continued to hover in her periphery.

Drabble's style is elegantly simple with a contemplative quality to it, which weaves between squarely based in reality and esoteric and philosophical passages. Told from the perspective of Jess's friend and neighbor Eleanor (or Nellie), the point of view is a mixture of first person singular and plural, as she accounts her own observances, things she's been told by Jess herself, and the memories and gossip from the other people of the neighborhood. This is slightly confusing, especially since we only understand who the narrator is after about a third of the book. It also lends the story a slightly arrogant feel, mixed with enough humility that we never feel that Nellie is being condescending. Rather, she feels lucky that she's been spared the troubles of some of the other mothers we encounter, including not having a special needs child herself. And while she isn't wholly judgmental, there were times when we feel she might have advised Jess to act differently. This makes the relationship between these two characters somewhat tentative, despite the obvious closeness they exhibit.

Some critics might say that nothing happens in this book, which is often another way of calling it boring. In some respects they would be right. We get no major conflict here or any huge climax. Instead, we get to see a life - one filled with minor conflicts, leading to minor climaxes. This is reality; real life and it is far from boring. Writing such a character-centric story in this manner and keeping the reader turning pages to the end is a testament to Drabble's writing talent.

However, about half way through this novel, it occurred to me that I was having difficulty reading this story. On the one hand, I was enjoying the writing. However, there were several things that disturbed me. To begin with, I was misled by the title somewhat, believing I was going to be reading mostly about Anna - this person of wonder and simplicity who, due to her disabilities (which are never absolutely labeled), floats through the world in an agreeably content haze. Anna, despite her aging over the decades from birth to into her 40s, always remains child-like. Being mildly dyslexic myself, I looked forward to hearing her story. However, in reality, what I got was a portrait of Jess, with Anna being the catalyst for how Jess lived her life. There is anything wrong with this, but perhaps a better title would have been "The Pure Gold Baby's Mother."

Another problem was the many tangents the narrator took while telling the story. Thankfully, these aren't wildly off the beaten track, and most of these side steps delved into the world of anthropology. While this makes perfect sense considering Jess's chosen field, some of the information seemed to assume the reader had some background on this topic. It felt like she was bandying about names of people, but only those known within that sphere. Rather than be condescending with lengthy (and usually annoying) explanations, she just let their names lay there. Unfortunately, this method made me feel out of touch with what was going on, and sometimes I just felt stupid.

This puts me in two minds about this book. On the one hand, I have to commend Drabble and her ability to make a compelling and lovingly presented read from the mundane lives of people that are just different enough from the ordinary to make them interesting. Fans of Drabble may even find this to be a masterful piece. On the other hand, I felt I was missing something, which left me dissatisfied with the book as a whole. It may be that my unfamiliarity with Drabble and her previous books has worked against me. For this reason, despite my newly found interest in reading other of her works, I can't fully recommend this (except to hardcore Drabble fans) and can only give it two and a half stars out of five. 


"The Pure Gold Baby" by Margaret Drabble published November 7, 2013 from Canongate Books UK and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt US is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes (iBook or audiobook), The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. This is a version of my review from Curious Book Fans, which also appeared on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.
My thanks to the publishers for sending me an advance reader copy of this book via NetGalley.

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